Saturday, February 17, 2018

North Rona - A Return

The dates have been set for my 2019 guide trip. It will run from July 10 - 19, and the primary destination will be North Rona. I have been fortunate to have visited Rona on two occasions. The first was in 2002; an exhilarating, but short, visit on the ship Poplar Diver skippered by Rob Barlow (see Chapter 28 of Book 2). 

Approaching Rona - MV Poplar Diver

Poplar Diver at Rona
My second Rona visit was in 2011 aboard MV Hjalmar Bjorge, skippered by Mark Henrys (see chapter 29 of book 2).

Approaching Rona - MV Hjalmar Bjorge

Hjalmar Bjorge at Rona
I am looking forward to returning to Rona in July of 2019; a suspenseful 17 months away. I say suspenseful because any visit to Rona is dependent on conditions. But the odds, in my case, anyway, have been fairly good. Only one of three attempts to get there over the years has failed. The unsuccessful attempt was in 2009. Although conditions precluded getting to Rona that time, we had some excellent Plan B options: Setting foot on Tanera Mor, Isay, South Rona, Shiants, Scalpay, Skye, Canna and Muck. (The Isay visit is described in chapter 4 of book 2).

Below are some photos of Rona from 2011. If visiting this far-off isle appeals, consider joining us in 2019. Getting there is, as always, dependent on sea conditions. But if anyone can get you there it's Mark Henrys at the helm of Hjalmar Bjorge.

Sula seen from Rona (zoom)

Departing Rona

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1898-1970)

He is much maligned. And over the past 40 years it has seemed incorrect to say anything positive about him. But I will.

Alasdair Alpin Macgregor was an author I discovered in 1989, when I was obsessed with finding books about the Hebrides. There was an old book shop in downtown Seattle called Shoreys, and while perusing their section on Britain I noticed a tiny book with a purple dust jacket. Its title was written in an intriguing font, and incorporated an exclamation point: It was Behold the Hebrides!

After 1989 I slowly collected all of Macgregor's books long before I learned of the controversy stirred up by The Western Isles, and how his writing style had been satirized after that. So I’m saddened by how some people see his works today. Summer Days Among the Western Isles, The Haunted Isles, Searching the Hebrides with a Camera, and A Last Voyage to St Kilda are works I will always treasure.

Macgregor's books are profusely illustrated with his beautiful photos. Martin Padget, in his book Photographers of the Western Isles (2010), has a chapter on Macgregor in which you'll find more biographical information on him than anywhere else. Macgregor's photos are brilliant, and they first captivated me in his book Searching the Hebrides with a Camera (1933). It is a book whose title built upon two earlier works on the islands that focused on exploration with a camera: Richard and Cherry Keaton's With Nature and a Camera (1898), and Erskine Beveridge's Wanderings with a Camera (1922).

Macgregor wrote many more books, all with titles guaranteed to make an island addict drool: Islands by the Score, The Enchanted Isles, An Island Here and There, and The Farthest Hebrides. Macgregor's best book - in my opinion - is The Goat-Wife (1939), which tells the story of his Aunt Dorothy, and her house Cnocnamoine (Hill of the Peats) near Ardgay. It is a beautiful book that describes his childhood stays there with his aunt.

In the epilogue of the book Macgregor describes how he returned to Cnocnamoine in 1937, fourteen years after his aunt died. He finds the property derelict, but the house is still standing, barely. Inside he finds his aunt's rusting iron beadstead, in which she died in 1923. Most of the rest of the furnishings had been taken.

His aunt's house in 1937: Photo AA Macgregor
The Goat-Wife is so good that, over the years I've read it several times, and in June of 1995 I paid a visit to Cnocnamoine. I do not know about today, but in '95 you could drive within a quarter-mile of the site of his Aunt Dorothy's house (NH 5921 8988). It was an easy hike in, and what I found was sadder that what Macgregor saw in 1937. One gable end of the house stood, but most of the rest was rubble. In amongst the ruin were rusting bits of a broken-up iron bedstead, perhaps the one in which his aunt had died.

As maligned as much of Macgregor's writing is, I found it intriguing, and addictive. Especially to someone who'd just 'discovered' the Hebrides on a typically hurried American tourist's first visit. A visit that whetted my thirst for more. But due to the expense of travelling I had to slake this thirst by reading books during the 50 weeks between visits. During those 50 weeks I was delighted to read Macgregors books over and over, even if they colorfully viewed the isles through rose-tinted glasses, or via 'purple-prose'. A parodied prose that in some instances seems to me to be direct English translations of Gaelic terminology.

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor passed away in 1970. His (and his father's) memorial stone can be found in Balquhidder burial ground in Perthshire. But Alasdair is not buried there. He became part of the isles when his ashes were scattered in the Hebrides. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Scenes from Oronsay

I am looking forward to returning to Oronsay in June. It is a tidal island off the south side of Colonsay, and the first time I was there was in 1993. On that occasion my wife and I walked across the strand from Colonsay at low tide. It was quite an adventure, especially not knowing how long we could remain on the island before our return route was submerged. Adding to the fun, on the way over, was a foot-deep tidal steam that had to be crossed. 

Sanding atop Hangman's Rock - Oronsay in the distance

Barefoot on the strand
My last visit to Oronsay was in 2016, during a cruise on Elizabeth G. I did not have to get my feet wet that time, as we were set ashore on a sandy beach on the east coast of Oronsay.

Oronsay Landfall
Aside from its historic ruins, Oronsay is a beautiful destination on its own; a place to just wander. And it was nice not to have to worry about the tides that time. From the beach we made an easy stroll across the machair to the priory ruins.

As you can see in the previous photo, the priory is surrounded by farm buildings. (Oronsay is still a productive farm.) The presence of the farm buildings did not sit well with MEM Donaldson when she visited Oronsay a hundred or so years ago. This is what she had to say about it:

Pursuing the road when you get in sight of the Priory, sheltered under Oronsay’s highest hill from the north and east, you are sharply pulled up by the shock of the farm buildings…which, crowded up against the old remains, greatly detracts from their appearance. But, as I have already sufficiently inveighed against such modern disregard for the proximity of monuments of antiquity, I will spare the reader further fulminations on the subject.

That said, I think you can still appreciate the beauty of the priory ruins. And the activity at the farm has probably prevented a lot of vandalism.

One of the many highlights of a visit to Oronsay is seeing the collection of medieval tombstones housed in what is called the Prior's House, which I believe was once a barn. 

Other highlights are Prior Colin's Cross and the Cross of St John.

Prior Colin's Cross
The Cross of St John is interesting, as it had once been smashed to bits, and has been reassembled (although most of its shaft is missing). On the head is an image of a grinning St John, raising a hand in a blessing.

Cross of St John

Cross of St John
Embedded in the ruins are several ossuaries, some, but not all, protected by plexiglas screens that let you see the human bones within.

No visit to Oronsay is complete without a climb to Carn Cul ri Eirinn at the top of the island. This is the cairn with its back to Ireland, from where, as the story goes, St Columba is said to have been able to see Ireland. But there is a problem with the story. Malin Head on Ireland is 60 miles to the southwest. The cairn is 300 feet above the sea, and Malin Head rises to 500 feet, so under ideal conditions Malin Head would have to be within 50 miles to be visible. But it could be that Columba mistook Islay for Ireland, as Islay is in the same direction, and much nearer. 

Looking towards Ireland from the cairn
Whether the story about Columba is true or not, it is well worth the climb to the cairn to enjoy the panoramic view over sea, sky, and islands: Mull and Iona to the north, Islay to the south, Scarba and Jura to the east, and the wide open Atlantic to the west. It is truly an amazing spot. Even if the tale about Columba seeing Ireland is false, I am sure he climbed up here to enjoy the view. 

Looking northeast from Carn Cul ri Eirinn: In the middle distance is Beinn Eibhne (Colonsay), directly behind it, in the far distance, is Scarba

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Lonely Sailor of Ceann Iar

A lonely cairn lies on the western tip of Ceann Iar of the Monach Isles. It marks a grave that is occasionally visited by day-trippers during the spring and summer. But most of them know nothing about the history of the man who's buried in this lonely spot.

A metal plaque embedded in the cairn reads:


Lieutenant William McNeill died when his ship, HMS Laurentic, hit mines off the coast of Donegal, 150 miles due south of the Monachs. Some of the story of Lt McNeill, and a drawing of the Laurentic, can be found at this link. More of the lieutenant's story came to light last week when I was contacted by a relative of William McNeill who lives in British Columbia. Here is the information he provided. 

* * *

Lt. W.A. McNeill was born on April 14, 1881 in the Free Church Manse, in Holm parish, Orkney Islands, Scotland. He was the eighth child of sixteen born to Rev. D. McNeill, MD and his wife. William or “Willie” as he was referred to by his family and friends, always had a love for the sea and ships and had to be a sailor.

Shortly after completing high school, around 1900, he went to sea with the merchant navy. In the early years of his career, he attained his Master’s Certificate and became a ship’s officer. He served as an officer on RMS Lusitania for a period shortly before she was sunk on May 7, 1915.

Lt. McNeill was a senior officer on HMS Laurentic when she struck two German mines and sank off Lough Swilly, Northern Ireland on January 25, 1917. Lt. McNeill was one of more than 350 men that were lost.

After a period of time, Lt. McNeill’s body washed up on the shore of Ceann Iar of the Monach Isles, some 150 miles from where he had perished. It is said that the fisherman who found him exclaimed “a McNeill has come home!” as the Outer Hebrides are the ancestral home of Clan McNeill. There is an unconfirmed story that, at roughly the same time, the body of a German submarine officer was washed ashore near the same place, and that the two bodies were buried side by side in two plain coffins made of wooden boxes. It is said that the locals remarked “We buried them together, for in death they were both the same.”

A few days after Lt. McNeill was lost, on January 31, 1917, his younger brother and closest sibling, Sgt. Patrick McNeill died of what was believed to be pneumonia. He had just returned to England after twenty months of combat in the trenches of France and claimed to have not had dry feet in over three weeks.

Lt. McNeill left behind a wife, 18 month old daughter, father and several siblings, one of which was a relatively well known Scottish author, F. Marion McNeill.

* * *

If you ever make it to the Monachs, be sure to walk to the west end of Ceann Iar. There, on a lonely point of land nearest to the island of Shillay, stop for a while and pay your respects to Lt William McNeill, a man who gave his life for his county 101 years ago this month.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Eva Alaire Calhoun (1927-2018)

Today my mother, Eva Alaire (Sneed) Calhoun, lost her year-long battle with cancer. Among many things, she instilled in me a love of family, and family history. Without her extensive research into our family history in the 1970s and 80s, I would have never known of my Scottish roots. Neither would I have made my first trip to Scotland in 1989, when my wife and I, accompanied by my parents, spent a few weeks there. It was during that trip that I first set foot on some of the Isles of the West, including Mull and Iona. 

Mom on Main Street - Iona
Mom was not able to travel in recent years, and so when I was in Scotland I would always climb to the top of an island, turn on the mobile phone, and hope to get a signal so I could call her. On those times when I could get through, she would be delighted to hear from me as I described the scenery, and what I was up to. I will miss her.

Mom on the machair - Iona

Mom and Dad in 1955

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Lismore Ridge Walk

Even though I've only done it once, the Lismore Ridge walk is an amazing day-out. The right way to do it is to spend a few days on Lismore, so you can take your time, wait for good weather, and then enjoy the walk at a relaxed pace. It is possible to do it as day trip from Oban, but you will always be thinking about making the last ferry. Although I call it the Lismore Ridge, it is actually a series of limestone ridges: Druim Mor (big ridge), Garbh Dhruim (rough ridge), and Druim nan Damh (deer ridge). 

When I made the walk I was staying in a B&B at Achinduin, at the south end of Lismore's west-side road. I set out on foot from the B&B early in the morning, then, after paying a visit to the ruin of Achadun Castle, I headed cross-country to the south, avoiding the top of Druim Mor until I reached Tom na Faire (look-out hill), at the southern tip of Lismore.

Achadun Castle
From the top of Tom Na Faire there is a direct view south to Eilean Musdile and its lighthouse. This particular island is seen by thousands of people every year from passing ferries, but it is rarely visited.  In the next photo, just beyond and to the left of the lighthouse, you can see Lady's Rock. This was where one of the chiefs of Clan Maclean is said to have stranded his wife, the daughter of the Earl of Argyll. He left her there to drown, as the rock is submerged at high tide. As one version of the story goes, she was rescued and the Campbells had their revenge. 

Eilean Musdile and Lady's Rock seen from Tom na Faire.

Eilean Musdile - Tom na Faire on Lismore to the right
From Tom na Faire I turned north to start the ridge walk to the north. There are many hills with "Faire" in their Gaelic names, which means "watching". And many of the 'Fairy Island', or 'Fairy Hill' place-names you come across are incorrect English translations of the name.

The next two hours of walking was magic as I made my way up the spine of the island; amazing sea-views in all directions.

Along the way you can also see low-lying Eilean Bernera off to the west; also know as Bernera of the Noble Yew. See this link for descriptions of visits to Bernera.

As you continue north, placid Loch Fiart appears down the slopes to the east. Having covered nearly three miles you eventually reach Lismore's highest point, the Barr Mor.

Loch Fiart

Atop the Barr Mor
Many years ago, I've lost track of when, I was inspired to visit Lismore and climb the Barr Mor after reading Campbell Steven's The Island Hills (1955). It is a charming book, and one that every Scottish island-lover should read. In it, the author has this to say of the climb up the Barr Mor:

It provides no meal for the mountianeer, not even a boulder problem to whet the cragsman's appetite. It is in fact a real lazy man's paradise, like Iona's Dun I, or Windy Hill on Bute; the way to its cairn, from whichever direction one approaches, is no more than a stroll. Yet your Lismore resident is as proud of his hill as any Chamoniard of Mont Blanc.'

Looking southwest from the Barr Mor 
From the Barr Mor you can descend west to Achinduin, or east to the main Lismore road at Kilcheran. Kilcheran is an interesting place. It was a Catholic college for 30 years (1792-1822), and more recently the last home of Isabel Bonus (1875-1941), who illustrated many of MEM Donaldson's books. See this link for a photo of Kilcheran House.

When I made the Lismore Ridge walk I descended west from the Barr Mor to return to the B&B at Achnaduin to complete one of the best island hikes I've ever made. The hospitality of the Walkers, who ran the B&B, was wonderful. Unfortunately the B&B is no longer running, so I have no recommendations on a place to stay. But a long visit to Lismore is a must. So take a look at the Lismore Accomodation website, pick a place, and go explore.